Not Our Kids, Opus Dei!

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By Ruth Bertels

From all points of the country, college-bound students are checking lists, class choices, and plane tickets.

Parents are double-checking the same and trying not to think of an empty chair at the table or an unoccupied bedroom on the second floor. Time enough for that later.

Other parents are thinking of these youngsters, as well, worrying about them, strangers though they may be, praying that they will not fall into the hands of Opus Dei, as did their children.

Not many lay Catholics know about Opus Dei, but there's not a seminarian, priest, bishop, cardinal or pope who isn't familiar with that organization.

An older priest, well-traveled, and not lacking in courage or dedication to the poor, spoke with a certain amount of awe in his voice when he said of Opus Dei authority figures: "They're everywhere, and everyone is afraid of them, bishops and priests, everyone. They have such power and money. Who can stop them?"

Of course, Opus Dei is not an unmitigated evil in the church today. On the contrary, there are many holy people in its ranks, with the kind of holiness that attracts young people, far from home, looking for a safe harbor and a substitute family. The problem is that the harbor is not safe, nor is the family healthy.

Dianne DiNicola and her husband came to know about Opus Dei's unsafe harbor and dysfunctional family when their daughter, Tammy, signed up with the organization in her sophomore year at the Jesuit Boston College.

The parents couldn't understand how their child became mixed up in a mind-controlling sect on the campus of a Catholic college. Hadn't they planned and sacrificed to give her the best education in the best environment possible?

By Tammy's senior year, the parents were on the horns of a dilemma. If they succeeded in showing their daughter just what kind of group she was in, she might return to the family, but her disillusionment could destroy her faith in God. If they left her in peace, she might lose her sense of personhood under Opus Dei's manipulation, and become nothing more than an obedient puppet.

The parents decided to call in an exit counselor, a Christian, who was well versed in Scripture, as well as experienced in helping young people mired in cults.

It was planned that Tammy would return home for one night to celebrate her graduation. During that evening, the exit counselor showed the young woman that God wanted a whole person to serve him, not someone who couldn't make an independent decision nor question the simplest command. The counselor used Scripture passages to show that love, not fear, is the way Christ wants us to follow.

Tammy never returned to Opus Dei. Little by little, she shed her fears and scruples. With the help of her parents and a wise, compassionate priest, she struggled day by day to begin to live a normal life. In the process, her faith in God became stronger. Today, Tammy is happily married and the mother of a little boy.

Some time ago, I spoke with her mother, Dianne, who founded the Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc.. She told me of a former member's book, "Beyond the Threshold," written by Maria Del Carmen Tapia , published by Continuum, New York/ $29.95.

To quote from the jacket of the book: "This is a story of a religiously motivated young woman who was manipulated, turned into a fanatic, and only gradually came to her senses - all because of a religious organization working in the highest echelons of the Roman Catholic Church: Opus Dei, "God's Work."

One morning in December, 1936, 11-year-old Maria Del Carmen Tapia left home to find food for her family in the war-torn city of Madrid, Spain. Children who grew up in the midst of Spain’s Civil War (July 29, 1936 to April 1939) understood the price of war.

In her autobiography, "Beyond the Threshold," Tapia tells of hunger and fear in her city, of mass executions and of losing 30 close relatives to the communists. By the end of the war, the young people had lost their childhood, and were eager for education.

Because money and books were scarce, students sold a book they had finished before buying a new one. They would also tear up books into sections and copy them by hand, better to share their treasures with others.

These adolescents of the Spanish Civil War – youngsters from 1940 to 1950 – became Opus Dei’s first recruits, under the founder Msgr. Josemaria Escriva.

His followers were to become a lay organization, whose purpose it was to bring Christ into the everyday world by prayer and example, supported by a small contingent of Opus Dei priests.

Around 1945, Tapia first heard of Opus Dei in unflattering terms because of its secretiveness.

When her fiancé accepted a job in Morocco, Tapia remained in Madrid and began work at Arbor, the general cultural journal of the Council of Scientific Research, as assistant to the associate director, Opus Dei’s Fr. Raimundo Panikkar, a British citizen of India, and a master of languages, both modern and classical.

Panikkar convinced Tapia that the negative reports about Opus Dei were nothing but slander. She was so impressed with Panikkar that Tapia asked him to be her spiritual director, and, later, made a seven-day retreat under him, during which she began to consider entering Opus Dei.

Eventually, Tapia broke her engagement and joined Opus Dei on New Year’s Eve, 1949, though she didn’t leave home until mid-January of 1950, at the age of 25, much against her parents’ wishes.

When Tapia arrived at the Opus Dei’s women’s house in Madrid, she received a cool reception and was told that, because of the lack of beds, she would sleep on the floor. Years later, when she was in a position to do so, Tapia made sure that every new member was made to feel welcome, and was given a bed.

After a couple of days, Tapia traveled 50 miles to the women’s house of study, where she was told that women sleep on boards every night, though priests and laymen sleep on mattresses because women are more sensual than men. (The age of chivalry was lost to Opus Dei.)

There was nothing unusual about the women’s daily schedule, with the recitation of the Psalms at various points in the day, examination of conscience, silence at stated periods, meditation, Mass, etc.

What was unusual, and what should have sent alarm bells ringing in Rome, was the matter of confession. Canon Law states that any member of a religious order may go to confession to whomever he or she chooses, with no questions asked, but Opus Dei members are directed to confess to only Opus Dei priests, and to only that priest assigned to individual members.

It gets worse. Tapia writes that a list was given to the priest of all who would confess that day and in the order given, which should have sent many members heading for the nearest exit.

Besides confession, an Opus Dei member was required to have weekly "fraternal chats" with the director. Added cause for alarm, for fraternal chats were not subject to the seal of confession.

In Maria Del Carmen Tapia’s autobiography, "Beyond the Threshold," we find men and women of sacrifice, prayerfulness and courage, who lived under the kind of stress that could and did break many members’ spirits.

When Tapia was corrected for a minor transgression before the entire community, Monsignor Escriva told her t hat for her penance he would not talk to her for two months, which was awkward, since she was one of his secretaries at the main house in Rome.

Tapia says, " More than two months went by, when one fine day, he began to speak to me with the greatest ease as if nothing had happened. Remembering these events nowadays, I confess my astonishment at the capacity for suffering a person endures when he or she follows a leader blindly. I also wonder what kind of sentiment could be in Escriva’s heart when he permitted himself to play with our feelings so insensitively."

Later, she would write, "I am forced to recognize that it (the silence) has an alarming resemblance to Stalin’s tactics when he required party members to confess errors of "wrong interpretations" of Communist dogma. Making those persons feel guilty created a kind of dependence on the source of truth – in our case, Escanita and Escriva."

Escriva didn’t tolerate any criticism from the outside, either, especially not from the Jesuits, of whom he stated: "I prefer a thousand times that one of my daughters should die without receiving the sacraments rather than they should be administered to her by a Jesuit."

On September 23, 1956, a new life opened up for Tapia when she left Rome for Venezuela to become regional directress of Opus Dei women, and a successful one at that.

During her first year, six young women joined her community. Four were sent to study in Rome, among whom was Maria Teresa Vega, intelligent, refined and well-read. Her father openly opposed Opus Dei and publicly treated Tapia with hostility for encouraging his daughter to enter the group.

It wasn’t long before Tapia received a telegram from Rome saying that Maria Teresa was to return to her father’s home. When Tapia met Teresa at the plane, she found the woman disconnected, as though sedated, so Tapia, instead of taking the woman to her family, brought her to the house and put her in the quietest room available. Later, Rome informed Tapia that Maria Teresa had suffered a nervous breakdown.

What Tapia couldn’t comprehend was how they could have put a sedated person on a plane without telling anyone and without sending a companion to assist her. She said the incident raised serious doubts about the central government’s sense of justice and charity.

Money was not easily come by for Tapia and the women’s houses, yet, for 10 years, Tapia sent at least $10,000 a year to Rome in checks made out to "Alvaro del Portillo, for the Works of Religion." Later, Tapia learned that Alvaro del Portillo had a personal account in Rome’s Bank for the Work of Religion, far removed from the poor and their needs.

In contrast to the house in Rome, Tapia decided that her women would be kept informed of the news with an evening TV broadcast, and if a ballet or good movie followed, she pretended she didn’t notice they had gone over the stipulated half-hour.

Tapia had the newspaper delivered daily and expected the women to read it, as well as books, which they discussed. Beyond that, everyone was required to learn to drive and to earn a license.

On October 11, 1965, Tapia was summoned back to Rome. This woman who had brought many members into Opus Dei and had established clinics in poor neighborhoods, besides a center of studies, who had brought financial stability to the women’s branch and had sent numeraries as missionaries to other countries, was to face humiliation, abject fear and loneliness in return for her efforts, because all had not been done according to Opus Dei’s rules.

She was kept under surveillance, which became stricter month after month until eventually she was eating her meals in her room, with one woman on guard with her and another outside the door. She wasn’t allowed to go to chapel.

Interrogation followed interrogation about what she had done to disgrace the community. For one thing she had told her women they could go to confession to any Opus Dei priest they wanted, and if none were around, to any priest with faculties.

Tapia’s health deteriorated under the pressure of suspicion and isolation, which drove her to think of suicide, as had others, but she dismissed the temptation. On Christmas, she was not given a single card, though she knew she had received at least eight.

In May, Tapia was called in for having given a letter to a numerary, Gladys, to mail to a friend in Venezuela. Gladys was summoned, as well.

At the conclusion of Escriva’s tirade, she was dismissed, and he shouted to the directress: "After this, take that one (meaning Gladys), lift up her skirt, take down her panties, and whack her on the behind until she talks. MAKE HER TALK".

To Tapia, he shouted, "You’re a wicked woman, sleazy, scum!"

After months of interrogations and solitary confinement, Monsignor Escriva summoned Tapia for the latest insult: "Either you request your release or bring dishonor to everyone, including yourself. There is no other solution for you but the street! Out!"

She was instructed to write a letter to Escriva saying that she had been happy in Opus Dei, but now felt unable to live the life of the Work.

After that, she was told she must go to confession to Fr. Joaquin Alonso, who warned her that she should live a life of penance, prayer and reparation, and even so, he doubted that she would receive eternal salvation.

On the morning Tapia left, she appeared before Escriva for the last time, who told her that if she spoke out against Opus Dei, he would publicly disgrace her and her family on the front page of every newspaper.

Throughout the community, the founder’s temper tantrums were both known and feared, but nothing could have prepared Tapia for his final slanderous abuse: "You’re wicked! Wicked! Indecent! Hear me well. Whore! Sow!"

Tapia was paralyzed, as if in a nightmare, though in her mind, while Escriva was shouting, she said she thought of Jesus, silent before his accusers, and that God had liberated her.

Later, when she went to confession to a Dominican priest, he asked her, "May I ask you one question? How do you go on believing in God?"

Tapia answered, "Because God has nothing to do with Opus Dei.

Eventually, Tapa found employment at the Education Abroad Program of the University of California in Santa Barbara, California.

We owe more to our young people than simply exposing Opus Dei’s danger to their spiritual and mental health; we owe them spiritual nourishment in the family, parish and on the college campus. TV sitcoms and designer jeans won’t fill hungry hearts.

When Dr. John J. Roche was a graduate student at Galway University, he joined Opus Dei as a numerary, as a full member, and has written a paper on the subject.

Gradually, Roche came to see that Opus Dei "was entirely self-centered, sectarian, and totalitarian, and that it was misleading the church about important points of its character."

After 14 years, he resigned in 1973 and took with him copies of about 140 editorials from "Cronica,’ the official magazine that all members use primarily for their meditation material.

Without success, Roche tried to draw the attention of church officials to the dangers found in Opus Dei, so he contacted "The Times,’ which published a study in January of 1981, and asked that the church forbid Opus Dei from recruiting any more members until after a thorough investigation had been made.

London’s Cardinal Hume, in December of 1981, published his guidelines for Opus Dei, requesting that it cease recruiting youngsters under 18, not prevent its members from seeking outside spiritual direction, and not prevent those who wish to leave from doing so.

Roche warns us that it is easy to be impressed with Opus Dei’s beautiful buildings, the energy of its well-dressed members, and their intense loyalty to Catholicism.

In reality, he says it is guided by fascist ideas turned to religious purposes. While living, the founder, Escriva de Balaquer, spread the word that he had received a vision of the Virgin Mary.

He demanded that the new recruits accept the fact that Opus Dei was revealed to him by God, was "absolutely perfect," and that he was infallible in matters of the "spirit of the work."

The members are told that they have no need to think. In fact, they are kept so busy with praying and working, there is neither the time nor the solitude for quiet thought.

Financially, the members are left with only a pittance after turning over their paychecks to Opus Dei, and even that pittance must be accounted for, though Opus Dei makes no accounting of its financial affairs.

The public, Roche says, sees happy, dedicated members, but that Opus Dei is harsh and unbalanced. The members beat themselves and wear spiked chains. The women sleep on a board every night, the men once a week.

Opus Dei follows a strange "apostolate of not giving." It does not give alms to the poor and the members are not allowed to give presents to anyone, but are pressed into forming friendships with the wealthy in order to obtain contributions.’

The members are allowed no holidays, and Roche says that they receive no gratitude and are worked relentlessly. Despite this, he tells us that many members are happy. They enjoy a deep sense of belonging and live in a world of certitude, with a strong sense of loyalty and purpose.

Those who cannot reconcile Opus Dei’s actions with Gospel values, resign; others may remain and attempt suicide.

Opus Dei cannot tolerate the light of day upon its activities, which is why every Catholic, lay and clerical, would do well to study Michael Walsh’s book, "Opus Dei, An Investigation Into the Secret Society Struggling For Power Within the Roman Catholic church," published by Harper-Collins.

That Josemaria Escriva de Balaquer was beatified on May 17, 1992, is a scandal to many in the Catholic world. To remain silent about this organization that is even today recruiting new members on college campuses, is an even greater scandal.